SN Commercial Drive | SiriusXM, we have a problem • Axiom charters a Dragon • Google grounds Loon
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 January 27, 2021
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"We really didn't need to start the year this way." That's how a satellite insurer reacted to problems with the SiriusXM satellite, SXM-7, built by Maxar Technologies. The nearly 7,000 kilogram satellite insured for $225 million showed signs of trouble during its initial checkout in orbit. Anomalies are often discovered during this period when satellite operators power up electronics, and deploy antennas and solar panels. It's too soon to determine the severity of the damage to SXM-7 or how the claim will affect the space insurance market, but "this will definitely shake things up," the insurer said. 

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  • Axiom charters a Dragon
  • Space Development Agency considers R&D
  • Google grounds Loon
  • Momentus founder resigns

A commercial Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station early next year chartered by Axiom Space will carry four private astronauts. Axiom Space revealed Jan. 26 the crew of its first mission to the ISS, called Ax-1 and scheduled for launch no earlier than January 2022. The flight is the first in a series planned by the company, which seeks to later add commercial modules to the ISS as a precursor to a stand-alone space station. The eight-day Ax-1 mission will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría who works for Axiom Space. Joining him will be American entrepreneur Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy, chairman of media and technology company Stingray Group, and Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and Vital Capital founder. Axiom did not disclose the ticket prices, but industry sources estimated it at around $55 million per person. [SpaceNews]

The Pentagon's Space Development Agency plans to award multiple contracts to address a laundry list of needs. SDA published a broad area announcement Jan. 25 asking companies to suggest space technology projects. To date, the agency has favored existing satellite technology to minimize development costs and keep programs moving rapidly. However, SDA is open to funding research-and-development projects for technologies it cannot find in the open market. The agency can "make limited but pivotal investments in research and development activities, particularly when the return on those investments can be leveraged in future acquisitions," the solicitation said. [SpaceNews]

Apollo Fusion won an order to build satellite electric propulsion systems for York Space Systems. Mountain View, California-based Apollo Fusion plans to provide its Apollo Constellation Engine electric propulsion system for a low Earth orbit constellation of at least 10 satellites York is building for launch in 2022. The companies did not disclose the constellation but York won an SDA contract in August 2020 for 10 communications satellites scheduled for launch in 2022. York is the fourth customer for Apollo's Hall-effect thrusters. Other customers include Saturn Satellite Networks, Spaceflight and the U.S. Air Force. [SpaceNews]

Mikhail Kokorich, Momentus founder and CEO, resigned from his executive post and left the company's board to address U.S. government concerns about foreign control. Kokorich, a Russian citizen, was replaced on an interim basis by Dawn Harms, the former Boeing executive who serves as Momentus chief revenue officer. Momentus is in the process of merging with Stable Road Acquisition Corporation, a publicly traded special-purpose acquisition firm. Momentus was considered a "foreign person" in the view of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews foreign investments in American companies with national security implications, due to Kokorich's role and that of another Russian citizen, Momentus co-founder Lev Khasis. [SpaceNews]

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is joining Acorn Growth Companies, a private equity firm based in Oklahoma City that invests in the aerospace and defense industries. Bridenstine will be a senior adviser, assisting Acorn with new investments and supporting the firm's current portfolio. Acorn has not invested to date in companies that work primarily in the space industry. However, the firm has invested in some space industry suppliers. Acorn partners are keeping an eye out for more prominent space industry investments. [SpaceNews]

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched 143 small satellites for a wide range of customers Jan. 24 on the company's first dedicated rideshare mission. The 143 satellites on the SpaceX Transporter-1 mission were the most deployed on a single launch, breaking the record of 104 set by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in 2017. SpaceX worked directly with satellite operators as well as rideshare aggregators, including D-Orbit, Exolaunch, Nanoracks and Spaceflight. The launch included 48 Planet Dove Earth-observation cubesats and 36 Swarm SpaceBee internet-of-things satellites. Also launched were technologies of interest to the U.S. military, including a laser communications terminal from Germany's Tesat-Spacecom, Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites from Capella Space, Iceye and iQPS, and radio-frequency mapping satellites from HawkEye 360. [SpaceNews]

Electric propulsion company Phase Four flew its first plasma thrusters on the SpaceX dedicated rideshare launch. Phase Four flew its Maxwell plasma propulsion systems, which rely on radiofrequency technology to produce plasma rather than traditional electrodes, at the request of a customer it declined to name. The customer is flying an operational mission and testing new technology in orbit. Phase Four expects to deliver two to four thrusters each quarter this year, and to launch six to 10 thrusters by the end of the year. [SpaceNews]

As space technology evolves, some startups take advantage of the latest breakthroughs. Others anticipate where the market is headed. Peter Platzer, Spire Global co-founder and CEO, mapped out Spire Global's business long before Moore's Law made it possible to cram weather instruments, maritime tracking and aircraft tracking sensors in three-unit cubesats. Albedo, the latest space startup accepted by the Y Combinator accelerator, is counting on similar technological evolution. Albedo expects launch prices to decline and on-orbit refueling to be available by the time it builds refrigerator-size satellites to acquire electro-optical imagery with a 10-centimeter resolution and thermal imagery with two-meter resolution. [SpaceNews]

Northrop Grumman and L3Harris were selected by the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency to each build a prototype sensor satellite to track hypersonic and ballistic missiles. The Missile Defense Agency awarded Northrop Grumman a $155 million contract Jan. 22 and L3Harris a $121 million contract Jan. 14. The companies are scheduled to deliver prototype satellites by July 2023 to be deployed in low-Earth orbit to test the capabilities of the sensors to track hypersonic and dim upper-stage ballistic missiles for the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program. [SpaceNews]

The U.S. Space Force officially terminated launch technology partnerships signed in October 2018 with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. These were public-private partnerships where both the government and the contractors agreed to invest in rocket development and infrastructure required to compete in the National Security Space Launch program. The plan from day one was to discontinue agreements with companies that did not win National Security Space Launch procurement contracts. Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman lost the competition to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX in August 2020. [SpaceNews]

Google announced Jan. 21 it is shutting down Loon, a venture to provide wireless connectivity by balloon that has been seen as both complementary to and competitive with satellite networks. In a blog post, Astro Teller, head of the advanced projects division of Google parent company Alphabet, announced that Loon will wind down operations in the next several months. Google started Loon in 2012 and spun it out into a separate company in 2018. "Sadly, despite the team's groundbreaking technical achievements over the last nine years," Teller wrote, "the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we've made the difficult decision to close down Loon." [SpaceNews]

Earth observation company Satellogic signed a contract with SpaceX covering several rideshare launches of its satellites through next year. The multiple launch services agreement makes SpaceX Satellogic's preferred provider for launching its constellation of microsatellites, after previously relying on Chinese, European and Russian vehicles. "The new rideshare program that SpaceX has put together has reduced the price on the order of four or five times on a per-kilogram basis," Satelllogic CEO Emiliano Kargieman said. "That really made the rideshare program compete very well in the market and it caused us to start having conversations with SpaceX."

NASA's demonstration of a non-toxic "green" propellant could power a wide range of spacecraft in the future. NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission was one of the payloads flown on the Space Test Program 2 mission from June 2019 to October 2020. The spacecraft met its performance goals, Trudy Kortes, program director of technology demonstrations in NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum. People involved with the mission are optimistic about the propellant's potential applications for future missions including small satellites and cubesats. [SpaceNews]

Northrop Grumman completed a static firing of the strap-on solid booster it developed for ULA's new Vulcan Centaur rocket. The test fire of the extended length 63-inch-diameter Graphite Epoxy Motor took place on Jan. 21 at the company's facility in Promontory, Utah. Northrop Grumman in August completed the first ground test of the GEM 63XL, firing the motor at a cold temperature in a qualification test. The latest test was at a hot temperature to validate the motor for flight. In the Jan. 21 test, the motor fired for approximately 90 seconds, producing nearly 449,000 pounds of thrust to validate its performance. The firing also verified the motor's internal insulation, propellant grain ballistics and nozzle in high temperatures. [SpaceNews]



  • SiriusXM, we have a problem
  • SpeedCast eyes Chapter 11 exit
  • SpaceX Starlink lasers
  • Inmarsat to connect autonomous passenger planes

SiriusXM and Maxar Technologies revealed problems with SXM-7, a SiriusXM communications satellite launched in December and insured for $225 million, in Jan. 27 filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "During in-orbit testing of SXM-7, events occurred which have caused failures of certain SXM-7 payload units," SiriusXM said in a Jan. 27 report. "An evaluation of SXM-7 is underway. The full extent of the damage to SXM-7 is not yet known." Maxar built the nearly 7,000-kilogram communications satellite to provide broadcasting to mobile radios for 15 years or more. The SXM-7 problem will not affect SiriusXM satellite radio service, the company said. [SpaceNews]

Tensions are heating up between SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Project Kuiper broadband internet constellations over orbital parameters and potential interference. When the FCC approved Amazon's plans for Project Kuiper, it directed the company to avoid undue interference with other satellites. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is considering Starlink's plan to change some satellite orbits, which Amazon opposes. SpaceX director David Goldman told FCC officials last week that Amazon is attempting "to stifle competition." [GeekWire/CNBC]

Satellite communications provider Speedcast International Ltd. is scheduled to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by March 31 after winning approval to reorganize under a new owner, private equity firm Centerbridge Partners. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas approved the Australian company's plan to install Joe Spytek, Speedcast president and chief commercial officer, as the new CEO. Under the reorganization plan announced Jan. 25, Centerbridge Partners, one of Speedcast's largest creditors prior to filing for bankruptcy protection, is making an additional investment of $500 million in the company. With that funding, Speedcast will repay its $285 million debtor-in-possession financing, make cash payments to vendors and reduce its $634 million senior secured debt. [SpaceNews]

The first Starlink satellites launched to polar orbit are equipped with laser crosslinks, a technology the company plans to include in additional satellites next year. The 10 Starlink satellites SpaceX launched Jan. 24 on its Transporter-1 dedicated rideshare flight "have laser links between the satellites, so no ground stations are needed over the poles," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted. SpaceX revealed it was testing intersatellite links in September. Intersatellite links allow satellites to transfer data to other satellites in the same orbital plane or an adjacent plane. [SpaceNews]

Inmarsat plans to provide communications for a U.K initiative to develop an automated, zero-carbon regional air transportation network. The initiative, called Project Hydrogen Electric and Automated Regional Transportation or HEART, seeks to develop hydrogen-powered, automated and remote-piloting solutions for small aircraft carrying between nine and 19 passengers, traveling distances of less than 926 kilometers. Inmarsat plans to provide "a hybrid connectivity solution that seamlessly combines its satellite communications with terrestrial networks, enabling remote 'digital' co-piloting and journey critical communication in the cockpit," according to a Jan. 25 news release. [Inmarsat]

Eutelsat signed deals with Liquid Telecom and ESRevolution to provide satellite communications services. Liquid Telecom expanded its agreement to obtain Ku-band capacity on the Eutelsat 7B satellite to provide internet access in sub-Saharan Africa. ESRevolution awarded Eutelsat a contract to extend its video gaming channel to European households. [Via Satellite]

Spanish satellite telecommunications operator Hispasat signed a multiyear, multi-transponder agreement with Gilat Satellite Networks to renew and expand their contract to offer cellular backhaul in the United States. Under the multiyear, multi-transponder deal, Hispasat will provide cellular network extension services with its Amazonas 2 and 3 satellites to key Gilat customers in the United States. [Hispasat]


Jan. 30
SpaceX Falcon 9 to launch 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida
Feb. 8-11
SmallSat Symposium with Peter Beck of Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit's Dan Hart and Kevin O'Connell from the U.S. Commerce Department
Feb. 20
Northrop Grumman Antares rocket to send cargo to International Space Station from Wallops Island, Virginia
Feb. 25
Soyuz rocket to launch 36 OneWeb broadband satellites from Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia
March 4
Ariane 5 to launch Star One D2 and Eutelsat Quantum Communications Satellite from Kourou, French Guiana
March 25
United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 to launch Boeing CST-100 Starliner uncrewed test flight
Thank you for reading this week's issue of SN Commercial Drive. For the latest commercial space news, visit SpaceNews.com and follow Debra Werner (@SpaceReportr) on Twitter.

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